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22 Jun 2020 | 17:17 | Jan Gnapp

Mark (38) originally trained as an aircraft engineer before injuries to both knees meant he had to move to office-based work. Married to Joanna, a veterinary nurse, their daughter, Phoebe was born 14 months ago. This is his story. 

‘I’d begun seeing a private therapist in 2014 after I had to stop doing the work I’d trained for all my adult life and really loved. I felt I’d lost my sense of who I was and had become snappy, reactive and aggressive. Psychotherapy taught me how to deal with my frustrations; to take a step back and analyse how I act. A lot of men see seeking therapy as weak, but I can’t praise it enough.

My wife became pregnant soon after we started trying and even though all the scans were fine, things weren’t easy for either of us. My brother was disabled, life having thrown everything at him: cerebral palsy, microcephaly and epilepsy. Even though my parents were always brilliant with him, having seen his struggles I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cope with having a disabled child. Sadly, he was critically ill with pneumonia throughout the time my wife was pregnant, and died a few months after Phoebe was born.

I felt myself to be in a bit of daze during the nine months. I could see our bump growing, but didn’t really feel I could do much. Also, my wife was struggling with peri-natal depression (which then carried through to post-natal). This thing that she’d wanted all her life, she suddenly felt really unsure of. When your wife is struggling and there’s nothing you can do about it, you start to struggle too. I felt I needed to chat to my mates, but that wasn’t happening. They didn’t seem to want to talk – even though some of them were also becoming dads. So about half way along I decided to go back to my therapist, which I found invaluable. She helped me re-programme my thinking in terms of my anxiety, and got me through the pregnancy. 

At our 20-week scan we were told the baby’s head was on the large size. I held off for as long as I could, but then I googled it and discovered that it could be macrocephaly (the opposite of what my brother had). I didn’t tell my wife, as I didn’t want to make her depression worse, but I was able to talk to my therapist about it. Later on, we had a couple of sessions with this brilliant duo called (who do both face-to-face and on-line sessions). They taught us so much – far more than cuts to the NHS mean that it can now offer.

The sessions turned out to be invaluable, because the birth was traumatic. As there was meconium in her waters Joanna was induced. Later, it took 45 minutes to get the epidural needle into her – me holding her while she was screaming in pain – and Phoebe’s heartbeat kept dropping. They also had to use both a suction cup and forceps to pull her out: both of which left their marks – literally and emotionally – on all of us.

Jo started to feel very low around day three and I must say I felt a bit broken by then. She and Phoebe had both got infections and had to stay in hospital for a week. Jo found it really hard, watching other mothers managing to breastfeed while she just couldn’t. Not made any easier by the staff insisting that she should. She still feels really bad about it, although I think it had its benefits as Phoebe thrived on being happy to be fed by anyone.

I was determined to be a modern dad: get involved, learn how to change and soothe the baby; give Jo a break. Again, I talked about this in therapy: my feelings of failure when I couldn’t manage to soothe my child. I was aware that Jo always did – and still does – far more me. It didn’t help either that when Phoebe was three and half months I was hospitalised with an unusual form of pneumonia, and for three months was too weak to do much around the house. Talking to my therapist she suggested that at this stage it’s natural that it’s the mother who’s the main carer for the child, while the father continues to provide. I was really beating myself up about not being able to ‘fix things’ – made worse by my illness - and, although she would never say ‘you need to do this’, she talked about things in context, suggesting, ‘have you thought about broaching things this way?’, sewing seeds of thought.

No-one can prepare you for becoming a dad. Everything’s an eye opener, you have good days and bad, and I can’t pretend it’s not been hard – particularly as Jo’s low mood lasted for about five months. It made me really sad that there was nothing I could do to help. Despite feeling low she still put so much time and effort into our daughter, and I’d tell her that all Phoebe’s play, her interactions, all of her development was down to her. But that wasn’t enough, so I was delighted when Jo also sought counselling through  

For me, having Phoebe has been my saviour. Looking back to before she arrived, I was still quite miserable – not just about my knees, but a lot of deep-rooted issues. She’s given me something positive to focus my attention on and I now have my own family unit, which is so healing.  

I didn’t do much reading, but one book I really like is Matt Coyne’s Man Versus Baby. It’s honest, funny and relatable. The humour can be quite dark – but then again, that’s true to life. My other advice would be to talk – to other dads, or a therapist if you feel you’re struggling. You need someone to listen and not judge you for how you’re feeling. Once you start talking, it’s amazing how many other dads have been in a similar situation and can relate to what you’re going through. And, trust me, it’s all worth it. Getting home from work and seeing my wife and daughter… every day, it just makes my heart melt.’

Tired looking dad reclines in a chair with baby